MINNEAPOLIS -- Long after the Timberwolves' locker room had mostly emptied following their loss to the Hornets on Nov. 10, a couple of stray teammates spotted Karl-Anthony Towns sitting in his chair, head bowed, muttering about something gone wrong.
It was unclear why Towns was so frustrated. The Timberwolves had lost at home, again, but they hung tight without Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio, and Towns played well -- 19 points, 13 rebounds, the usual light-on-his-feet defense. The Wolves were 4-3, a feel-good entry into the muddled race for one of the last two playoff spots in the West. What could be wrong?
Towns explained that he was angry at himself for failing to alert Minnesota's guards about incoming picks on defense. As word of Towns' self-flagellation filtered through the organization, teammates and officials just shook their heads and laughed: "This? This is what the dude is worried about? Holy crap."
Wolves coach Sam Mitchell had given everyone the next day off; Minnesota had just wrapped a back-to-back in the thick of a brutal stretch of 14 games in 25 days.
Towns was at the practice facility by 9 a.m. "I work hard on my game," Towns told ESPN.com. "I want to be the strongest player, the most intelligent player and the most skilled player on the court at all times."
This is what the late Flip Saunders envisioned when he grouped Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine in a kind of NBA Big Brother program with Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Professor Andre Miller, Ph.D -- ultra-skilled young players learning right away what really matters in basketball. Front-office wonks around the league clucked that the strategy went against Rebuilding 101 in the modern NBA. For bad teams, every roster spot is precious -- a finite chance to find Hassan Whiteside and Robert Covington, or unearth another trade asset. You might be able to "waste" one on a fogey with one foot out of the league. But three? Rivals chuckled.
They're not chuckling now, and some of them are quietly conceding that Saunders might have been on to something with the Geezer Gambit. The Wolves are trying to do things right on both ends, and they were sporting a top-10 defense before another Rubio injury -- and some potent opponents -- plunged them down the rankings.
"You ask players whether they'd prefer to win and play 75 percent of the minutes they'd have played in a loss, or to lose and play more," general manager Milt Newton said. "We want the kind of players who would rather win, and we have some of them now. Look at our young players -- they're talented, but they also have mentors who are showing them how to play. And that's huge."
Towns and Wiggins represent hope, finally, for the league's saddest franchise -- a forgotten outpost that hasn't sniffed the playoffs since 2004 and spent most of the interim flailing between failed strategies. Long-time employees are almost afraid to talk about the team's happy new direction. Sit with any of them for more than five minutes, and they start rattling off their go-to tales of woe: David Kahn's weird personality, the long-gone assistant coach who backstabbed the head coach, the legendary point guard workout before the 2009 draft that convinced everyone Jonny Flynn would be a star, the worst arguments on the team plane. These employees are scarred.
It's time to get happy. The duo of Towns and Wiggins represents the dream foundation for any rebuilding team. It has to kill the Sixers, in Year 3 of tanking for just these sorts of players, that Minnesota fell backward into both of them. First, the Timberwolves botched Kevin Love's contract extension (once more, with feeling: KAAAAHHHHNNNN!!!!), turning him into the unhappy trade chip that netted Wiggins. Then, they lucked into a wave of injuries that turned a wannabe No. 8 seed into a loss machine that out-tanked the Sixers and Knicks for Towns.
The messy process doesn't matter anymore. The Wolves have two no-doubt studs. What matters now is how the team surrounds them -- and that they don't mortgage the future to make the playoffs ahead of schedule.
Towns is already the best player on the team, and if he stays healthy, he should eventually develop into one of the league's top 10 players. He can score in the post, mostly with a bullying right-handed jump hook, and he threads nifty passes above and around help defenders. He slices for dunks on the pick-and-roll, and when the offense requires Towns pop out toward the 3-point arc, he can blaze past bigger defenders with an advanced pump-and-go game:
He has a soft jumper, and he'll eventually shoot 3s. "We all know I can hit 3s," Towns tells ESPN.com. "But for now, I'm taking what the defense gives me." His inside-out versatility is reminiscent of a younger, turbocharged Al Horford, and like Horford, Towns should be able to play with all sorts of big-man partners. That malleability is both a blessing and a curse for Minnesota. When it comes time to find that partner, they could go with almost anyone -- including a traditional, behemoth center.
That route could work fine, but for the Wolves to become special, Towns probably has to play center alongside a stretchier power forward such as Nemanja Bjelica. That setup would give the Wolves pristine spacing, a requirement as long as Ricky Rubio is running the show, and Towns could play closer to the rim on defense.
And that is where Towns wowed the league before even turning 20. Minnesota has him mostly dropping back against the pick-and-roll, and Towns is agile enough to muzzle the passing lane to a rolling big man while at the same time spooking opposing point guards out of shooting. That is a delicate dance:
He's already a scary rim protector. Opponents have scored 12 fewer points per 100 possessions against Minnesota with Towns on the floor, and they're shooting a ghastly 40.8 percent on shots near the rim when Towns is around, per NBA.com -- a figure that would have been neck-and-neck with Rudy Gobert's league-best mark last season.
"When my guy goes to the basket, sometimes I'm like, 'That's OK, because KAT is there,'" Rubio tells ESPN.com.
Need him to switch onto smaller, faster, and more triple-happy player, an increasingly important skill in the modern NBA? No problem!
Towns is managing all this without piling up a ton of fouls, and he's an expert at keeping his blocked shots in play -- rare things for a rookie. Minnesota has recovered 68 percent of Towns' rejections, per SportVU tracking data. That's sixth among players with at least 10 blocks, and a retention rate that would have ranked third overall last season. "I've been working on that since high school," Towns says. "Sometimes I'd just catch the ball while I blocked it."
Bjelica has defended better than most expected, and the Wolves have played well on both ends with Towns, Bjelica and Wiggins on the floor together. Bjelica is 27, so he may not be on the roster when Wiggins and Towns are ready to win big. The team's younger bigs, Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne, have stagnated amid uneven minutes behind Bjelica.
Minnesota also needs to find the right long-term partner on the wing for Wiggins, because God knows it isn't the bricktastic Prince. And by the way: All the nitpicking of Wiggins' rookie season has obscured how good this dude is at age 20. He has balletic footwork on defense -- always on balance, capable of changing directions on a dime. Some players have a jagged start-and-stop to their defense: They move one way, stop, gear up again and begin another movement. There is a liquid quality to the way Wiggins flows from one movement to the next, and Minnesota has put together some spectacular sequences when all of their best defenders are on the floor:
Wiggins is not ready to be a James Harden-style orchestrator on offense, and that's fine. He has shot just 9-of-28 out of the pick-and-roll after struggling last season, per Synergy Sports, and he's still settling for long, pull-up 2s, a staple of Mitchell's anti-modern offense. He doesn't have the feel yet to read the game one step ahead, to manipulate it with change-of-pace dribbles, skip passes and other advanced drive-and-kick tactics.
"He has to still realize when to pull up, when to attack and when to pass," Newton says. "And we need him to approach every game with a sense of urgency. When he does that, he's pretty damn close to unstoppable. But there are games where he doesn't dominate, because maybe he just doesn't want to."
But look carefully, and you'll spot hints of progress. Wiggins might bait a trap, and then slip a pocket pass to Towns:
Wiggins can lull a defender, bolt away from a pick, and find a cutter:
He has flashed a hesitation dribble, a Euro step and some improved vision. He's stepping into 3s with more confidence and jacking more of them. "We need to see that improvement on his 3-point shot," Newton says. Wiggins might top out as a No. 2 option, but he should become one of the league's best No. 2s, and the presence of Towns as the potential top dog makes that a perfectly acceptable outcome for the Wolves.
It also means the Wolves need another ball handler on the perimeter, and that's where life gets interesting. The Wolves are keeping that spot warm for LaVine, but it's unclear what position he'll play if he ever earns it. The answer will have a huge impact on Rubio's future in the Twin Cities.
It is beyond dumb that Rubio and LaVine have played just 10 minutes together all season, even given Rubio's knee issues. Mitchell announced in training camp that LaVine would start alongside Rubio at shooting guard, but Mitchell reversed course, slotted Prince as a starter and has used LaVine almost exclusively at point guard. He has been a train wreck on both ends of the floor. Still, there is value in learning whether LaVine has the decision-making smarts to play point guard. If he does, Rubio becomes a trade asset. Rubio is 25, five years older than the Wiggins/LaVine/Towns core. It is not a coincidence that the Wolves have gone out of their way to force-feed LaVine point guard minutes.
There is also value in investigating how LaVine looks next to Rubio (and Wiggins). "I would like to play more with Zach," Rubio says. "He can help me, and I can help him. But if Coach likes bringing him as a backup point guard, we gotta accept that."
Rubio is young enough to grow alongside the baby Wolves. He is one of the most fascinating players in the league in this sense. There's a lot of evidence suggesting point guards who can't shoot are tricky pieces to build around, but good things just happen for Minnesota when Rubio plays. They die without him and outscore opponents when he's on the floor -- a trend that has held up his entire career, even for most of the minutes Rubio logged without Kevin Love.
It may be that Rubio's combination of passing and defense is so unusual, it lifts those around him in ways that don't apply to Michael Carter-Williams, Rajon Rondo, and other shaky-shooting point guards. Newton says he hopes Rubio remains the franchise point guard over the next half-decade. "That's our hope," Newton says, "but he has to stay healthy."
The feeling is mutual. "This franchise believed in me, and I believe in this franchise," Rubio says. "I hope we have a long future together."
And there is always the possibility that Rubio, a hard worker, follows the Jason Kidd trajectory toward competent long-range shooting. But if his jumper plateaus, Rubio could become one of those players who falls off in the playoffs, when teams craft schemes to exploit any opponent weakness. Hell, Jeff Teague is a much better shooter than Rubio, and playoff defenses defanged the Hawks last season in part by going under picks on Teague -- by treating Teague as if he were Rubio.
The Wolves have time to explore all these paths, provided Mitchell nudges Prince to the fringes of the rotation when Minnesota falls out of the playoff race. Shabazz Muhammad playing five fewer minutes per game than Prince isn't ideal for a rebuilding team, and the Wolves need to see what they have in him, too. Side note: They nearly picked Giannis Antetokounmpo over Muhammad before settling on Muhammad as the clock was ticking in the draft room, per several sources.
It's only a matter of time before the agents for Payne, Muhammad, Dieng and other young guys playing limited roles begin to pipe up. The Wolves have more prospects than they can realistically play as long as Garnett and Prince receive entitlement minutes. Minnesota has to resist the temptation to deal away future assets for a chance at a long-awaited playoff spot, but if the Wolves conclude that guys such as Dieng and Muhammad aren't part of their core, they could look to package them for a mid-career veteran who could help now, provided he's the right age, and on the right kind of deal. Strike while those Muhammad/Dieng types still carry the whiff of intrigue, and you could net something good. Wait too long, and they become Jeremy Lamb and Maurice Harkless -- guys you give away for free but potentially blossom elsewhere.
"We are cognizant about not rushing it," Newton says. "We don't want to be a flash in the pan. We don't want to disrupt our young core. If we do something, it has to be the kind of deal where the majority of that young core is still here, but you get a veteran who is not that old -- and can grow with the group."
Those trades are harder to find now, since mid-career veterans are mostly under contracts that teams are happy to keep as the salary cap skyrockets. The Wolves just need to be patient: keep the picks they have, work aggressively in free agency to sign younger players before Wiggins and Town net max contracts and let the Rubio/LaVine question marinate. The Timberwolves should tread carefully before committing to Mitchell, even though the players love him, and his early Toronto teams jacked a ton of 3s. That volume hasn't held up in Minnesota. If the Wolves can find a coach better-suited to the pace-and-space era, they should think hard about hiring that person.
Everything beyond Wiggins and Towns is a question mark, and that's a wonderful starting point. Season-ticket sales are up 15 percent, and the team is on pace to exceed its sponsorship revenue goal for the first time in nine years, officials say. The Target Center renovation will feature many bells and whistles, including a mammoth new scoreboard, and last week's Yahoo! report stating Glen Taylor is finally ready to sell a minority stake to Steven Kaplan presents a road map for an orderly ownership transition. Kaplan, a private-equity mogul who owns a piece of the Grizzlies, would likely include Garnett in any majority ownership, per sources familiar with the matter. Kaplan might even let the Wolves crack the luxury tax when they are ready to contend!
Minnesota wants to be at the cutting edge of player health and maintenance; before Saunders' death, they were on the verge of purchasing virtual-reality technology, from a company called Strivr, that would allow injured players to simulate basketball activities while they recover, sources say.
The Wolves have a long way to go, and the journey will be messy. But it's OK to feel hope again in Minnesota.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Kobe Bryant, at the end
There is no nobility in Kobe Bryant refusing to acknowledge how time has ravaged his game. There is no grand pathos in the aging gunslinger firing away, bullets blazing from the chamber, even as age has robbed him of the reflexes required for any duel. The goal in the NBA is to win basketball games, and Bryant is not helping the Lakers win basketball games.
He hasn't hit 33 percent from deep since 2009, and he's jacking almost nine triples per 36 minutes this season. Antoine Walker is uncomfortable with that shot selection. He is on pace to be the only rotation player ever to use at least 28 percent of his team's possessions while shooting below 35 percent from the floor.
For all of us who remember what Bryant used to be, it has been uncomfortable to watch. The Kobe Bryant who played the first half in Brooklyn two weeks ago was among the worst high-usage players I've ever seen. He coughed up the ball left and right, launched horrible shots and admired those horrible shots for so long that Joe Johnson leaked out for multiple fast-break chances. Do you know how far behind the play you have to be for creaky Joe Johnson to decide, "Oh, wow, I might be able to score in transition if I just jog a little"?
There is no heroism here. There is just bad basketball from a brilliant player who knows better, and the Lakers should be ashamed for enabling this charade. Bryant looked more like a normal basketball player whipping smart passes around the floor Sunday against Detroit. Let's hope that keeps up.
2. The Reggie Jackson/Andre Drummond rescreen antidote
Opponents are already experimenting with a bunch of funky strategies to neuter the Jackson/Drummond pick-and-roll rampaging through the league. The most obvious: having Jackson's guy duck under every Drummond pick, a strategy that allows Drummond's defender to stay home, and dares Jackson to hoist long jumpers.
Stan Van Gundy told me on a podcast over the summer that he wasn't especially concerned with this tactic, and the Pistons have already discovered one way to beat it: just have Drummond flip around and immediately set a second pick:
The best point guard defenders will slither under both of those picks, but the rest will be lost trying to navigate Drummond's little screening dance.
3. Houston's broken floor balance
The Rockets' maintaining a borderline top-five defense while playing half of last season without Dwight Howard was among the best stories of 2014-15. Flash forward a year, and the Rockets rank a disgusting 29th, ahead of only the Pelicans, who have to play huge portions of games without five NBA-level players.
There are a ton of factors behind Houston's early-season collapse: injuries have forced them to play small-ball lineups, and opponents are feasting on the offensive glass; Howard continues to miss games; they've been ice cold from deep; Harden has fallen back to someplace in between last season's acceptable defense and the Embarrassing Internet Sensation "D" he played two seasons ago; and the entire team just seems listless.
But don't overlook this one: Houston's floor balance is awful, and teams are blowing by them in transition. About 15.5 percent of enemy possessions have come via transition chances, the sixth-highest mark in the league, per Synergy Sports.
Too many of Houston's possessions end with four Rockets chilling below the foul line:
That is death. Any team that drives as relentlessly as Houston is going to have trips that end with Harden falling over after a missed layup and a big man crashing the offensive glass. That's part of the deal. But at least two of the other guys have to be primed for that frantic offense-to-defense transition.
Houston can still rediscover its run-and-gun ferocity, provided Howard can be a night-to-night presence soon. He has bounced in and out of the lineup, Terrence Jones has appeared in just five games and Donatas Motiejunas remains out with a back injury. Ty Lawson is learning the ropes, and Kevin McHale is still figuring out how to split time between Lawson and Patrick Beverley, who turned an ankle over the weekend.
The Rockets might just need time to find their rhythm. But the season moves fast, and if the Rockets keep laying down, fractures could open -- the kind that don't heal easily.
4. Rodney Hood, waiting and baiting
Hood is straight-up cruel toying with help defenders who sag in against the pick-and-roll. He keeps his dribble alive as he glances back and forth between two potential targets: his big man rolling to the rim and the shooter on the weak side. Once he tricks that poor help defender into committing to one of those targets, Hood rifles a pass to the other.
If Hood's 3-point shooting recovers, he looks like the perfect do-it-all playmaking wing. The Jazz are smoking teams when they ditch both of their point guards and play Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward and Hood. That could present at least a minor organizational dilemma next season, when Dante Exum returns from an ACL tear.
5. Games without white jerseys
I'm torn. Home teams should not wear dark jerseys, and away teams should not wear white jerseys. I'm a purist about these things. But I enjoy the visual experience of two teams in non-white jerseys playing against each other -- the clash of blue and red, yellow and blue or even uglier combinations involving that gross Thunder orange jersey.
6. Phoenix without both its starting guards
7. Evan Fournier, driving into your chest
Fournier is putting up big numbers in a whopping 38 minutes per game, and he's a sneakily physical player who can score in a variety of ways. When smaller guys cut him off, Fournier just keeps driving right at them until they backpedal just enough for him to launch a floater.
It's a useful way for Fournier to leverage his size against opponents who play three-guard lineups or when the Magic shift Fournier to shooting guard alongside Mario Hezonja.
Give the Heat this: They are not afraid to go crazy with alternate uniforms. They have as many alternates as the league allows, and they have taken some eye-searing risks with jerseys mimicking tuxedos, the Miami Vice pink-hued aesthetic and more. Most of them have been awful.
Their military appreciation unis tread the line between detailed and busy, but the details are so spot-on, they stay on the happy side of that line. The red-and-white striping on the left shoulder pops, and the little nods to military uniforms are perfect: the stenciled numbering on the front and the "your name goes here" patch on the back for each player's last name.
9. Forwards who can switch
It's a common way for NBA offenses to ease into a possession: The point guard and center run a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor, suck in the defense and then swing the ball to the other side for a second pick-and-roll between a wing and the team's other big man. The specifics vary, but it looks like this:
It's hard for a defense to contain that first pick-and-roll and then scramble into position to defend the second one the way they'd like. In the rush to snap into ideal defensive positioning, teams leave creases open and smart offenses pierce right through them.
The simplest solution: Just switch that second pick-and-roll. If the defenders involved can guard either party, you snuff out a dangerous attack and force the offense to reset itself as the shot clock dwindles. Oklahoma City does this a lot if that second pick-and-roll involves Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
10. Cleveland's 'Super Mario Bros.' power-up sound effect
They play the mushroom-acquisition pew-pew-pew after every made Cavs free throw, and it makes me smile every time. I am a sucker for any original Nintendo sound effect.